Addressing the elephant in the room

Last month I listened to a very interesting conversation on branding and marketing of oneself. A contrarian view espoused that reaching out is all about being human and humane and that branding/marketing has no space therein. What followed next was a heated debate. Suddenly, we were addressing the elephant in the room. Something no one wanted to talk about – the fundamentals of human interaction and network.

This took me back to a time we were developing a crisis management manual around a new pricey product launch. A two-day workshop was organised by the PR consultancy. The top leadership as well as the cross functional teams of communicators, marketing and sales, legal, and others, were all part of this learning exercise.

Just as in any workshop, there were discussions, questions and answers, scenario planning, copious writing of the perfect answer to an imperfect/difficult question (which really is the main purpose of holding such an exercise) and multiple practice sessions on being ambushed and caught off guard.

What the whole exercise however missed was providing the right answers to the key question – why was the product being priced so high? No precise answer was available for this question.

Capturing the pulse of your audience

This is an example of a situation where no one addresses the elephant in the room. The audience is right there. The organisation often knows what is that key question they seek an answer for. However, the appropriate answer to that question is more often than not; clothed in verbose words and sentences. Motherhood statements – a term every communicator is familiar with. We are at times so scared of telling the truth. Because truth has many layers and many shades and has the propensity of being misconstrued.

How do you then know how your truth will understood in the spirit with which it is spoken? The solution lies in the kind of relationships you have built with your stakeholder. When you are human and humane, the positioning of your message is easy. When your stakeholder relationship is on a need-to-know basis, it can place you on a very slippery road.

Understanding your stakeholders

The basic premise of communication begins with understanding the stakeholder’s universe. Stakeholders can be media, employees, government, suppliers, shareholders, consumers, communities, wholesalers, distributors, students, housewives, educational institutions, customers, and many more. Communicators develop key messages based on the business needs and priorities and customise them according to the stakeholder it is aimed for. A key message to the media may be different from one that is circulated internally. A policy document that carries critical recommendations and submitted to the government may have more details than a normal press release.

The common denominator in the narrative across this universe is – what does the stakeholder wish to hear? Do we frame our answers keeping that in mind? Many a times not. The norm often is to give out a message that the organisation wishes to give. And that may be different from what the audience wishes to hear.

Organisations need to be authentic

For organisations to ensure good relationships with their respective stakeholders, it is critical they stay closer to the truth. It is okay to be vulnerable and share problems. In the quest to come across as a company that has a solution for just about every problem and/or crisis, the messaging gets wrapped up in non-essentials and statements that mean very little to the audience.

Today’s dynamic and fluid environment riddled with the pandemic and its challenges has already exposed vulnerabilities within the organisations and its people. We all have a choice of either harnessing the power of being vulnerable and authentic, or close our eyes and remain blind to the elephant in the room.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Sarita Bahl
Sarita Bahl is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Swedish Institute of Management Program. An experienced and versatile leader, she comes with nearly four decades of professional experience. She has over the years successfully overseen the communications and public affairs function and led the corporate social responsibility strategy for Bayer South Asia, Pfizer, and Monsanto, among others. Sarita has held multiple roles across diverse industries, the public sector, trade associations, MNCs, and the not-for-profit sector. Her areas of interest include advocacy, stakeholder engagement, sustainability, and communications.

As an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and Senior Practitioner (Mentoring) from the European Council of Mentoring and Coaching (EMCC), Sarita specializes in career transition, inner engineering and life issues. Sarita enjoys writing and is passionate about animals, books, and movies.

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